The Revenant (2015)

Blood lost. Life found.

After Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) dominated the 87th Academy Awards, earning a number of zenith gold-plated statuettes including Best Motion Picture and Best Achievement in Directing, all eyes were firmly fixed on Mexican producer-writer-filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. Fast-track twelve or so months and The Revenant, Maverick Iñárritu’s latest masterwork, seems precision-made to echo Birdman’s Oscar glory, as this part-thriller, part-wilderness-survival-odyssey transports audiences back to the harsh, uncharted 19th Century American Frontier, an era and setting that has rarely been committed to film with this much visual splendor, immediacy and gut-wrenching intensity.

Set in 1823 America, and inspired by true events, The Revenant — a title that refers to one who has returned, as if from the dead, to terrify the living — tells the remarkable tale of explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio like you’ve never seen him before), a man who is forced to go beyond the limits of his own mortality, pushing his body, mind and soul to physical and psychological breaking point, in an arduous attempt to survive the relentless and unforgiving natural world.

'If only I had some marshmallows to roast ...'
‘If only I had some marshmallows to roast …’

With a gripping screenplay written by Mark L. Smith, Vacancy (2007) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman — that’s heavy on action and light on words — based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name, The Revenant opens when Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his fur trapping expedition is abruptly ambushed by a savage band of tribesmen having already settled along the banks of the Missouri River, a nasty clan of Indians known as the Arikara — or simply dubbed the Ree by trappers — who attack the band in search of a young abducted Pawnee girl, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). This visceral and violent cultural clash makes for a confronting opener, one that showcases the time-frame’s unmitigated rawness — particularly as a barrage of arrows, rough and patched tomahawks and an assortment of shotguns tear trough the combating factions — setting the tenor for the rest of the picture while establishing the filmmaker’s political viewpoint on the untamed American West; it’s in this grim and merciless bloodbath that audiences come to realize that the European frontiersmen are no more evolved than the Native Americans they’re warring, despite the hundred or so years of apparent progress that’s taken place across the ‘developed’ United States.

With a majority of the traders viciously slaughtered, it’s Hugh Glass who hauls the crew to safety via a riverboat, a navigator who’d been out hunting for provisions with his half-Pawnee Indian son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), away from the fur trapping party. Glass safeguards two men in particular, the callous bigot John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and an eager young buck by the name of Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Following the men’s narrow escape into the mountains in an effort to get back to Fort Kiowa, Glass (who’s scouting ahead) gets ferociously mauled by a grizzly bear — yes, ‘mauled’ not ‘raped,’ as the bear tearing into Glass is most likely female, a mother protecting her two cubs — this standing to be one of the most brutal sequences ever committed to film; I’m not easily startled, but this assault is both primitive and unyielding — a scene that holds no restraint and will surely be a discussion point for years to come. We see this gargantuan beast rip Glass’ scalp, puncture his throat and leave him with numerous life-threatening gashes. With his last ounce of strength, Glass manages to draw out his hunting knife and land enough fatal blows to drop the feral beast, the bear toppling onto Glass as the two tumble into the ravine below. Soon enough, Glass’ fellow comrades come to his aid, discovering his near dead body beneath the battered animal.

'That is one big pile of s**t.'
‘That is one big pile of s**t.’

Barely recognizable — a twisted heap of blood and flesh — Glass is swiftly stitched up, though the severely injured route-finder can hardly breathe, let alone hike through the treacherous badlands. As a result, Captain Henry decides to press forward with his battalion, opting to seek help from the nearest outpost, placing Glass in the hands of Fitzgerald, Bridger and his son Hawk (who volunteer for the task). Though, after slaying Glass’ mixed-race son right before his very eyes, the cold-hearted Fitzgerald convinces a timorous Bridger to leave the critically wounded man behind. Placing Glass in a shallow grave — not before stripping him of his resources and weaponry — the two men head off to rejoin the expedition; Glass alone in the dirt and left for dead. Deserted by the members of his own hunting team, Glass refuses to succumb to his fate. Driven by sheer will and his love for his Native American wife and unjustly murdered son, Glass, against all odds, embarks on a 200-mile crossing through the vast, cruel and exhausting American West, trekking towards home and salvation, on the vengeance trail of the man who betrayed him: John Fitzgerald.

Crystallized through fluid, incessant sweeps, Iñárritu’s first historical epic is a work of unparalleled beauty as the camera literally floats through what appears to be untouched terrain, then finds itself so close-in on the action (and its characters) laying open the inherent nature and vulnerability of man. Filmed in remote parts of Canada and Argentina, which double for the American West, the awe-inspiring geography — snow-covered mountaintops, rampant conditions and treacherous high altitudes — make The Revenant an aesthetically arresting spectacle. Re-teaming with Iñárritu for The Revenant, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman (2014), for the most part, employs only natural light (and organic elements such as fire) along with an array of complicated tracking maneuvers to re-create the American frontier, literally immersing the audience in another time and place. Choosing to shoot on an Arri Alexa 65 digital camera (with lenses ranging from 12mm to 21mm), Lubezki has created a metaphoric window — with little grain or noise — in which the viewer can experience the film’s vexing landscapes and primordial essence; and there’s really nothing else quite like it.

'Thou smell of mountain goat.'
‘Thou smell of mountain goat.’

Anchored by steely performances, each and every actor in The Revenant is so acute and earnest, plainly present and ‘alive’ within all their scenes. A ‘vanity-free’ Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), gives a career-defining performance as real-life historical figure Hugh Glass, an experienced frontiersman and skilled hunter abandoned and left to die, a guy who’s willing to keep fighting until he draws his very last breath, with DiCaprio displaying the man’s loneliness, desperation and sheer humanity; an act that encompasses a lifetime of emotions. DiCaprio is undoubtedly put through the ringer here as Glass is thrust into a number of unimaginable endurance experiences: from going over a ranging waterfall to sleeping inside the carcass of a dead horse to withstand hypothermia — I’m tipping the multitalented 41-year-old to take the Best Actor Oscar come February. Likewise, Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), gives a nuanced rendering of John Fitzgerald, a guy who doesn’t come across as your prototypical mustache-twirling villain; he’s a scared and frail man, hiding behind a tenacious, tough-as-nails persona.

In supporting roles, Will Poulter, The Maze Runner (2014), brings a sense of fragility to the morally conflicted young adventurer Jim Bridger — forced to tackle his conscious after leaving a maimed Glass behind — while Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina (2015), imbues Captain Andrew Henry with compassion and benevolence; turning what could have essentially been a one-note side player into something significantly more.

Despite its spellbinding temperament however, The Revenant is not a film for all tastes — its excessively violent, emotionally pounding (to the point of exhaustion) and just a tad drawn out. It may also come across as overly self-indulgent or too pretentious for some — think Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life (2011), to get an idea of what’s on offer here — dragging its feel before reaching its prolonged and slightly underwhelming climax; by the time Glass does reach his final destination, where he confronts Fitzgerald, proceedings play out in a tedious manner — scenes and events feel a little drawn-out, and for no good reason. The film is also too repetitive with a bulk of the narrative surveying our hero, the chips stacked against him, as he tirelessly endeavors to stay alive; Glass wanders from one breathtaking location to the next, treating wounds or trying to find shelter, aid and sustenance.

And the award for best support goes to ... Leo's stick!
And the award for best support goes to … Leo’s stick!

Primal, esoteric and starkly poetic, its unrefined instinct and surreal-like quality bring an innate vehemence that’s seldom seen in the medium today with The Revenant adopting a rich context to serve as the backdrop for this unsettling and emotive tale of survival, chronicling the triumph of the human spirit. A cinematic rarity, Alejandro González Iñárritu delivers an uncompromised experiment in filmmaking, one that’s elevated more so by an exceptional cast, with The Revenant existing as a truly unique and gutsy undertaking, even if the picture’s long-winded run-time — 156-minutes to be exact — can become an endurance exercise in its own right.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Revenant is released through 20th Century Fox Australia